Live in Love, 1-4

5:1 Therefore, be imitators of God as dearly loved children 5:2 and live in love, just as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God. 5:3 But among you there must not be either sexual immorality, impurity of any kind, or greed, as these are not fitting for the saints. 5:4 Neither should there be vulgar speech, foolish talk, or coarse jesting—all of which are out of character—but rather thanksgiving. 5:5 For you can be confident of this one thing: that no person who is immoral, impure, or greedy (such a person is an idolater) has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.

Like Father, Like Child, Eph 5:1-2

Therefore – These two verses are transitional. They provide a vital rationale for holy living: we are to live moral and upright lives not as some kind of ‘rule-keeping’ exercise, but so that we can become more like the God who has saved us. There must be a ‘family likeness’ between the Father and his children.

Be imitators of God – In many important respects, it is utterly impossible for us to imitate God: indeed, ‘You shall become like God’ was the great lie of the serpent and remains the essence of irreligion. We cannot copy God, for example, in either his creative or his redemptive work. Yet in the areas of attitude and relationships, we can and must follow our Maker. Especially we are to become more like our heavenly Father in this matter of forgiveness. Those who have received forgiveness from God, must show it to others. ‘Like Father, like child.’

Live a life of love – The imitation of God is widened from forgiveness, Eph 4:32, to the whole sphere of love. And this not fitfully, or occasionally, but as the habit of a lifetime.

  • Eph 3:17 And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love…
  • Eph 4:2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
  • Eph 4:15 Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.
  • Jn 13:34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
  • 1 Co 16:14 Do everything in love.
  • Col 3:14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
  • 1 Pet 4:8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.
  • 1 Jn 3:23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.

Just as Christ loved as… – This is the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of Christian love. Our love should be modelled on that of Christ, whose love was expressed in the sacrificial giving of himself on behalf of others.

…and gave himself up for us – ‘There is not a single place in Paul’s writings, nor in the New Testament generally, where the death of Christ can be spoken of as only an example to be followed, without the further expression of its atoning significance.’ (Foulkes) The verb us here is also used of the heathen, Eph 4:19: some give themselves up to licentiousness; we are to follow Christ, who gave himself up in order that we might be saved.

  • Eph 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her
  • Jn 15:12-13 “my command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
  • Tit 2:14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.
  • 1 Pet 2:21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps…1 Pet 2:24 (NIV) he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.
  • 1 Jn 3:16 (NIV) This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.

Our love or each other is to be modelled after Christ’s love for us.  He ‘gave himself up for us’.  Such love is a painful, sacrificial love.

‘The Chinese Christian theologian Choan-Seng Song tells us that in Chinese “one is required to say the two words ‘love’ and ‘pain’ almost in the same breath.  I am referring to the expression ‘pain-love’…A mother feels pain-love for her child.  Husband and wife feel pain-love for each other.  Inherent in such aa pain-love is self-sacrifice.  Through the intensely human experience of pain-love we can surmise what God’s love for the world may be like…The cross is God’s excruciating pain-love.  It is rooted in the love of the God who bears pain for the world.’ (Christopher Lamb, Belief in a Mixed Society.

A fragrant offering – This term describes the acceptability of Christ’s death. It was an offering which pleased God.

  • Gen 8:21 The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.”

‘Not that God took any delight or content in the bitter sufferings of Christ, simply and in themselves considered; but with relation to the end for which he was offered, even our redemption and salvation. Hence arose the delight and pleasure God had in it; this made him take pleasure in bruising, him, Isa 53:10. God smelled a savour of rest in this sacrifice. The meaning is, that as men are offended with a stench, and their stomachs rise at it, and on the contrary delighted with sweet doors and fragrances; so the blessed God speaking after the manner of man, is offended, and filled with loathing, and abhorrence by our sins; but infinitely pleased and delighted in the offering of Christ for them, which came up as an odour of sweet smelling savour to him, Whereof the costly perfumes under the law were types and shadows.’ (Flavel)

Sacrifice to God – This term describes the essence of Christ’s death. It was the laying down of his own life as a ransom, 1 Tim 2:6, and a propitiation, Rom 3:25.

Heb 9:14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

Coarse joking – eutrapelia occurs only here in the NT, and Paul’s precise meaning is accordingly difficult to determine.  Usage elsewhere, along with the context, suggest that what we would call ‘dirty jokes’ are out of place among God’s people.

Thanksgiving – ‘Our cheerfulness should show itself as becomes Christians, in what may tend to God’s glory.’ (MHCC)

Greedy person – such a man is an idolater – ‘A covetous man makes a god of his money; places that hope, confidence, and delight, in worldly good, which should be in God only.’ (MHCC)

‘Those who allow themselves, either in the lusts of the flesh or the love of the world, belong not to the kingdom of grace, nor shall they come to the kingdom of glory.’ (MHCC)

‘Little do they think that worldliness is a most guiltful sin in respect of God, and most hurtful in respect of men. Hark what the Word of God saith of it, Eph 5:5, – it is idolatry, and idolatry is the first sin of the first table.’ (Richard Capel)

Live in the Light, 5-14

5:6 Let nobody deceive you with empty words, for because of these things God’s wrath comes on the sons of disobedience. 5:7 Therefore do not be partakers with them, 5:8 for you were at one time darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of the light—5:9 for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth—5:10 trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. 5:11 Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 5:12 For the things they do in secret are shameful even to mention. 5:13 But all things being exposed by the light are made evident. 5:14 For everything made evident is light, and for this reason it says:
“Awake, O sleeper!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you!”

God’s wrath – ‘Dare we make light of that which brings down the wrath of God?’ (MHCC)

In Jonathan Edward’s famous words: ‘The use of this awful subject may be for awakening unconverted persons to a conviction of their danger. This that you have heard is the case of every one out of Christ. That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor anything to take hold of, there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.’

You were once darkness – ‘Let them reflect that once upon a time they too had been darkness; not merely unenlightened or ill-informed, but wrapt in a dense fog-bank of moral hallucinations, Satanically blinded therewithal and glorying in their shame.’ (Simpson)

‘Darkness, like a minus quantity, symbolises a yawning deficiency, a destitution of the most essential element of life, the light of day. Their quondam darkness, notwithstanding all the palliatives invented to gloss over the real situation, lay under a curse and blight of sterility; but the Spirit of life by whom they have been visited vivifies all he touches and fosters in his seedlings the self-evidencing fruitage of the spiritual orchard.’ (Cf. Rom 6:21) (Simpson)

‘The Christless state is a state of ignorance, and such must needs be naked and unarmed. He that cannot see his enemy, how can he ward oft the blow he sends? One seeing prophet leads a whole army of blind men whither he pleaseth. The imperfect knowledge saints have here, is Satan’s advantage against them; he often takes them on the blind side; how easily then may he, with a parcel of good words, carry the blind soul out of his way, who knows not a step of the right!’ (Gurnall)

But now you are light in the Lord – ‘This darkness cannot be enlightened, but by its union with Christ, which is expressed in the following phrase, ‘But now are ye light in the Lord.’ As the eye of the body once put out, can never be restored by the creature’s art, so neither can the spiritual eye, lost by Adam’s sin, be restored by the teaching of men and angels.’ (Gurnall)

This is striking: not just formerly in the darkness, and now in the light. Paul is referring not just to their environment, but to their very lives. ‘Sinners, like men in the dark, are going they know not whither, and doing they know not what.’ (MHCC)

‘When the vilest transgressors repent and believe the gospel, they become children of obedience, from whom God’s wrath is turned away.’ (MHCC)

The fruit of the light – Paul likens goodness and truth to a harvest ripening under the light of the sun.

Foulkes says that this is closely connected with v8, given that v9 is parenthetical.  The same thought is taken up on v17.

Find out what pleases the Lord – Not what suits ourselves, but what pleases him. How do we find this out? – By consulting God’s word, Isa 8:20; by considering the example of Christ.

The word translated ‘find out’ implies ‘careful thought and discrimination. The light of God is given, but it does not free us from the responsibility of thought and choice.’ (Foulkes).  See also Rom 12:2.

‘The word dokimazō means “putting to the test,” “proving,” “examining.” The Christian life is not just a simple”] acceptance of doctrines and rules; believers exercise intelligent judgment as they relate their theology to specific moral situations.’ (Patzia)

‘The desires and choices of those who walk in the light are governed by their prior determination, to please not themselves (Gal. 1:10), but their Lord (2 Cor. 5:9; Phil 4:18; Col. 1:10).’ (Foulkes)

Patzia observes that ‘euarestos‘ (well-pleasing) usually carries a sacrificial connotation ( as in Rom. 12:1; Phil. 4:18).  Beare: ‘here it suggests the thought that the life of the Christian is ever laid upon the altar. All of our actions are to be an offering to God … and we must therefore take care that they are acceptable to him.’

The fruitless deeds of darkness – ‘These works of darkness are unfruitful, whatever profit they may boast; for they end in the destruction of the impenitent sinner…There are many ways of abetting, or taking part in the sins of others; by commendation, counsel, consent, or concealment. And if we share with others in their sins, we must expect to share in their plagues.’ (MHCC)

But rather expose them – ‘If we do not reprove the sins of others, we have fellowship with them.’ (MHCC)

‘A distinction seems to be drawn between two discrepant classes of transgressions. Some are too foul to be mentioned by sanctified lips. These ranker abominations, like rotting carcases, ought to be buried out of sight. But iniquities of a less heinous cast, compatible with a conscience not utterly seared, should be rebuked by shedding the light of heaven on their obliquity.’ (Simpson)

It is said – What follows seems to be an adaptation of Isa 26:19; 60:1. However, the wording of the last line suggests that a fragment of an early Christian hymn is being quoted.

‘After the example of prophets and apostles, we should call on those asleep and dead in sin, to awake and arise, that Christ may give them light.’ (MHCC)

Live Wisely, 15-20

5:15 Therefore be very careful how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 5:16 taking advantage of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 5:17 For this reason do not be foolish, but be wise by understanding what the Lord’s will is. 5:18 And do not get drunk with wine, which is debauchery, but be filled by the Spirit, 5:19 speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord, 5:20 always giving thanks to God the Father for each other in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5:21 and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Those who travel over boggy or uneven ground cannot afford to ‘take it easy’ as those walking on an even surface may do. Similarly, those who live in difficult times must take special care to watch their step.

‘They are to “market” the time allotted to them, to turn it to good account like the faithful servants in the parable of the Talents. Opportunities are ever on the wing: they must be seized and husbanded or else spurned and missed, for as a rule they do not recur.Paul counsels them to buy them up with sanctified ingenuity, even as shrewd hands purchase properties at a favourable juncture, or as the intelligent husbandman improves the fleeting hour. Time may be gained as well as lost. Too many dawdlers “let the years slip through their fingers like water” to no worthy purpose…”A man’s situation,” says Burke, “is the preceptor of his duty;” and in a higher sphere the signals of providence are to be read with enlightened judgement. But duty itself is not optional, nor has the imperative mood properly any future tense.’ (Simpson)

Therefore – ‘Because the danger is so great, the wickedness to appalling, the opportunity to precious, and because constant watchfulness, earnest effort, and unwavering zeal are so necessary, do not be absurd.’ (Hendriksen)

Do not be foolish – Do not be without reflection or understanding.

Understand what the Lord’s will is – Do not depend on you own understanding; do not regard the advice of others as the ultimate touchstone of what is true and right. Let the will of the Lord be your guide. Pr 3:5, ‘Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.’

‘Jesus himself prayed, “Not my will but yours be done,” and taught us to pray, “May your will be done on earth as in heaven.” Nothing is more important in life than to discover and do the will of God. Moreover, in seeking to discover it, it is essential to distinguish between his “general” and his “particular” will. The former is so called because it relates to the generality of his people and is the same for all of us, e.g. to make us like Christ. His particular will, however, extending to the particularities of our life, is different for each of us, e.g. what career we should follow, whether we should marry, and if so whom. Only after this distinction has been made can we consider how we may find out “what the will of the Lord is.” His “general” will is found in Scripture; the will of God for the people of God has been reveals in the Word of God. But we shall not find his “particular” will in Scripture. To be sure we shall find general principles in Scripture to guide us, but detailed decisions have to be made after careful thought and prayer and the seeking of advice from mature and experienced believers.’ (John Stott, Authentic Christianity, 248)

Fee points out that the background to this lies, not in Acts 2:13, but in the preceding verses of the current passage, which began at Eph 4:17. In an initial set of ‘before’ and ‘after’ contrasts, Eph 4:17-24, Paul has mentioned in Eph 4:18 that those outside Christ have their understanding ‘darkened’. This is picked up again in Eph 5:8, where Paul uses the motif in a variety of ways. In the present verse, drunkenness is mentioned as one of the ‘deeds of darkness’. The sense is, ‘Never get drunk…always be filled by the Spirit.’

Paul does not here emphasis any ecstatic aspects of the Spirit’s presence, as though there is a direct spiritual counterpart to being drunk with wine. Rather, it is the Spirit’s sanctifying influence which is in view, as in Gal 5:16.

Paul does not say, ‘Be full of the Spirit’, but, ‘Be filled by the Spirit’. Filled, then, with what? Paul’s prayer in Eph 3:17-19 was that ‘Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith,’ and that ‘you may be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God.’ ‘Here, then, is the ultimate imperative in the Pauline corpus: God’s people so filled by/with the Spirit’s own presence that they come to know God in all his fullness and reflect such in the way they live in relationship to one another and to God himself.’ (Fee, 722)

It is, no doubt, an individual responsibility to be filled with the Spirit. But the immediate context here draws attention to its corporate aspect. There is a need for God’s people collectively to be so ‘full of God’ by his Spirit that their worship and mutually submissive relationships witness to the Spirit’s presence.

Examples of being ‘filled’ with the Holy Spirit: John the Baptist, Lk 1:15; his parents, Lk 1:41,67; our Lord, Lk 4:1; Peter, Acts 4:8; Stephen, Acts 6:5; 7:55; Saul, Acts 9:17; 13:9; Barnabas, Acts 11:24. See also Acts 2:4; 4:31; 6:3; 13:52. It sometimes appears to be a permanent endowment, Acts 6:5; 9:17; 11:24; at others a particular empowering for a special occasion, Acts 4:8; 13:9.

There are no references to anyone actually being filled with the Spirit outside Luke’s writings. The injunction in Eph 5:18 could mean, (a) ‘be filled with the Spirit’; (b) ‘be filled in (the sphere of) the Spirit’; (c) ‘be filled in (your) spirit’ (ie in your higher faculties rather than your lower). Whatever the correct rendering of this verse, it is clear that the NT as a whole encourages us all to experience in fullest measure the indwelling, enriching, and empowering of the Holy Spirit.

This is one of a series of basic principles of conduct (cf. Eph 4:1,17 5:1) laid down as a sequel to the great doctrinal statements of chapters 1-3. Being filled with the Spirit is not so much a euphoric experience as an ethical imperative.

Paul is not teaching a new experience here, one which his readers had not encountered before. Cf. Acts 19:1-7; Eph 1:13-14. The NT knows nothing of believers who have not received and been sealed or baptised with the Holy Spirit. Nor is Paul teaching a single, definitive experience. The tense is in the present continuous: ‘Go on being filled’. Furthermore, Paul is not teaching an experience to receive so much as a duty to carry out. Cf. Gal 5:16ff. We are not passively inert in our relationship with the Holy Spirit. If we lack spirituality, it is not because God has withheld something but because of personal failure.

‘To be filled with the Holy Spirit is to be filled with the immediate presence of God himself, and it therefore will result in feeling what God feels, desiring what God desires, doing what God wants, speaking by God’s power, praying and ministering in God’s strength, and knowing with the knowledge which God himself gives.’ (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 649)

How can someone already filled keep on being filled? Note what happened to Peter: he had been filled on the Day of Pentecost; yet was filled again a few days later in order to meet a new challenge, Acts 4:8. Similarly with Paul in Paphos, Acts 13:9. Our spiritual life can only be maintained by a continual replenishment, Jn 1:16. Thus Jesus taught his followers to seek the Holy Spirit, Mt 7:7ff. We are not only to come to Christ, but to ‘abide’ in him, Jn 15:4.

‘Someone might object that a person who is already “full” of the Holy Spirit cannot become more full – if a glass is full of water no more water can be put into it. But a water glass is a poor analogy for us as real people, for God is able to cause us to grow and to be able to contain much more of the Holy Spirit’s fullness and power. A better analogy might be a balloon, which can be “full” of air even though it has very little air in it. When more air is blown in, the balloon expands and in a sense it is “more full.” So it is with us: we can be filled with the Holy Spirit and at the same time be able to receive much more of the Holy Spirit as well. It was only Jesus himself to whom the Father gave the Spirit without measure, Jn 3:34.’ (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 782)

What are the signs of being Spirit-filled? First, it will be in sharp contrast to the extravagance, the hedonism, the self-confidence of drunkenness. Being filled with the Spirit is not another kind of intoxication, 1 Cor 14:32. The apostles on the Day of Pentecost were completely self-controlled and lucid. There is no necessary connection between the filling of the Holy Spirit and swooning, chanting, and other physical or emotional effects. On the other hand, the contrast with being drunk reminds of the allegation on the day of Pentecost, Acts 2:13, and that the fullness of the Spirit is accompanied by a holy exhilaration: the Spirit-filled Christian is on fire for God. The fullness of the Spirit brings both order and ardour. Second, it will lead to such spiritual and moral features as Paul describes in Eph 5:18-6:9. There will be spiritual edifying and God-glorifying praise; (cf Col 3:16; Ps 40:3) gratitude in all things; (cf Job 1:21; Ps 145:2; Php 4:11) transformed relationships, defined in the form or duties, rather than rights, Php 2:5; Eph 5:22ff;

‘Such fullness of the Holy Spirit will result in renewed worship and thanksgiving, Eph 5:19f, and in renewed relationships to others, especially those in authority over us or those under our authority, Eph 5:21-6-9. In addition, since the Holy Spirit is the Spirit who sanctifies us, such a filling will often result in increased sanctification. Furthermore, since the Holy Spirit is the one who empowers us for Christian service and gives us spiritual gifts, such filling will often result in increased power for ministry and increased effectiveness and perhaps diversity in the use of spiritual gifts.’ (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 781f)

‘Men are said to be filled with wine when completely under its influence. In the same way, they are said to be filled with the Spirit when he controls all their thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. (see Lk 4:1; Acts 6:5; 11:24) To the Christian, therefore, the source of strength and joy is not wine, but the blessed Spirit of God. Just as drunkenness produces rioting and debauchery, so the Holy Spirit produces a joy which expresses itself in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs.’ (Hodge)

‘At first sight this juxtaposition seems a trifle incongruous; but on maturer reflection we remember how the disciples on the day of Pentecost were charged with drunkenness, albeit groundlessly. Signal manifestations of the Spirit in seasons of revival have not seldom been accompanied by phenomena easily confounded with physical intoxication; and scenes of this description Paul had doubtlessly witnessed. The “gift of tongues” itself had features that might be stigmatised as delirium.’ (1 Cor 14:23) (Simpson)

‘What is the evidence of being filled with the Spirit? It is not excessive emotionalism or spectacular phenomena (note that nothing is said here about either speaking with tongues or gifts of healing), but rather the following types of behaviour:-

  1. worshiping God together and thus edifying one another;
  2. making music in our hearts to the Lord – a joyful inner disposition;
  3. always giving thanks to God for everything;
  4. submitting ourselves to fellow Christians out of reverence for Christ.’

(Hoekema, Saved by Grace, 51)

Be filled with the Spirit – John Stott remarks that:-

  1. It is in the imperative mood. It is not optional, but obligatory. We have no more liberty to avoid this responsibility than the many others which accompany it in Eph.
  2. It is in the plural form. It is addressed to the whole Christian community. None of us is to get drunk; all of us are to be Spirit-filled. It is not a privilege for the elite, an optional extra for honours students or outstanding saints, but the duty of the rank and file.
  3. It is in the passive voice. ‘Let the Holy Spirit fill you’ (NEB). There is no technique to follow or formula to recite. What is essential is repentance of all that grieves the Holy Spirit and a believing openness so that nothing hinders us from being filled. Note that the parallel passage in Col reads, ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly’, 3:16. The Word and the Spirit are never to be separated: to obey the Word and to surrender to the Spirit are virtually the same thing.
  4. It is in the present continuous tense. This implies that we are to go on being filled. The fullness of the Spirit is not a once-for-all experience which can never be lost, but a privilege to be renewed continuously by faith and obedience. We have been ‘sealed’ with the Spirit once and for all; we need to be filled with the Spirit and go on being filled every moment and every day.

‘The two chief spheres in which this fulness is manifest are worship and fellowship. If we are filled with the Spirit, we shall be praising Christ and thanking our Father, and we shall be speaking and submitting to one another. The Holy Spirit puts us in a right relationship with both God and man. It is in these spiritual qualities and activities, not in supernatural phenomena, that we should look for primary evidence of the Holy Spirit’s fullness.’ (Stott, Baptism and Fullness, 59f)

Am I filled with the Holy Spirit?

Richard Bewes invites us to ask:

  1. Am I more focused on Christ than on the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:14)?
  2. Am I more focused on emptying than filling?
  3. Am I more focused on the moral than on the sensational (1 Cor 3:1-3)?
  4. Am I more focused on others than on myself?

Bewes adds that no individual in the New Testament ever claimed to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  It was left to others to make that observation.

(The Top 100 Questions, p81)

Fullness is not optional

‘”Be filled (Eph 5:18) is not a tentative suggestion, a mild recommendation, a polite piece of advice.  It is a command which comes to us from Christ with all the authority of one of his chosen apostles.  We have no more liberty to escape this duty than we have the ethical duties which surround the text, e.g. to speak the truth, to do honest work, to be kind and forgiving to one another, or to live lives of purity and love.  The fullness of the Holy Spirit is not optional for the Christian, but obligatory.’ (Stott, Baptism and Fullness, 60)

This verse does not support the claim that after becoming a Christian a single, definitive filling is essential for completion.

Dwight L. Moody once demonstrated the principle like this: “Tell me,” he said to his audience, “how can I get the air out of the tumbler I have in my hand?” One man said, “Suck it out with a pump.” But the evangelist replied, “That would create a vacuum and shatter it.” Finally after many suggestions, Moody picked up a pitcher and quietly filled the glass with water. “There,” he said, “all the air is now removed.” He then explained that victory for the child of God does not come by working hard to eliminate sinful habits, but rather by allowing the Holy Spirit to take full possession.

‘Being filled with the Spirit is not a once-for-all experience. When Paul commands: “Be filled with the Spirit” he is speaking in the present continuous tense which gives the meaning “Go on being filled with the Spirit.” D.L. Moody once said, “I am filled with the Holy Spirit, but I leak.”‘ (Charles Sibthorpe, A Man Under Authority)

Speak to one another – indicating the horizontal aspect of worship, whereby we encourage and instruct each other. Examples: ‘Stand up and bless the Lord’; ‘O worship the King’. It is interesting to think of examples of hymns and songs in which thoughts are addressed:-

  1. To oneself: ‘Be still, my soul’
  2. To one another: ‘Stand up and bless the Lord’; ‘Come, let us join our cheerful songs’
  3. From oneself to God: ‘O love that will not let me go’
  4. From ourselves to God: ‘We love the place, O God’
  5. To God in the third person

Make music – Lincoln says, with regard to this expression, that ‘although its original meaning involved plucking a stringed instrument, ψάλλω here means to make music by singing (cf. also 1 Cor 14:15; Jas 5:13), so that there is no reference in this verse to instrumental accompaniment.’

The argument of regarding the use of musical instruments in Christian worship is tenuous.  First, a stream of OT references is presented to support the (obvious) point that musical instruments were employed in worship in OT times.  Then, it is noted that, despite the absence of any reference in the NT to musical instruments being used in Christian worship, the fact that the NT nowhere condemns their use is taken to indicate that OT usage was continued in the NT church.  Because the early church consisted ‘almost entirely of Jews’ (really??), ‘it is highly likely that they continued using musical instruments in the church, just as they did in Old Testament worship.’  Finally, the expression used in this verse is based on a Greek word (‘psallontes‘) which was ‘commonly used’ to refer to strumming or plucking a stringed instrument.  The entire argument is weak.  On the meaning of the Greek word, see the note above.

Music and worship

Spurgeon warned: ‘I am afraid that where organs, choirs, and singing men and women are left to do the praise of the congregation, men’s minds are more occupied with the due performance of the music that with the Lord, who alone is to be praised. God’s house is meant to be sacred unto himself, but too often it is made an opera house, and Christians form an audience, not an adoring assembly. We come not together to amuse ourselves, to display our powers of melody, or our aptness in creating harmony. We come to pay our adoration at the footstool of the great King, to whom alone be glory for ever and ever.’ (The Best of Spurgeon, 129f)

In your heart – rather ‘with your heart’, ‘because the exhortation is not to silent, but to heartfelt worship. In congregational singing the outward expression of praise must not outrun the spirit of inward devotion. As the mouth sings the words, so the heart is lifted up to the Lord.’ (Wilson) Cf Jn 4:24.

‘God does not prescribe for Christian worship in the detailed fashion of Old Testament times, but the New Testament shows clearly what the staple ingredients of corporate Christian worship are, namely, praise (“psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” Eph 5:19), prayer, and preaching, with regular administration of the Lord’s Supper. (Ac 20:7-11) Singing to God’s praise was evidently a big thing in the apostolic church, as it has been in all movements of spiritual power ever since: Paul and Barnabas, along with their praying (aloud), sang hymns in the prison in Philippi, (Ac 16:25) and the New Testament contains a number of what appear to be hymn fragments (Eph 5:14; Php 2:6-11; 1 Tim 3:16; and others) while the “new songs” of Revelation are both numerous and exuberant, indeed ecstatic. (Rev 4:8,11; 5:9-10,12-13; 7:10,12; 11:15,17-18; 12:10-12; 15:3-4; 19:1-8; 21:3-4) Any local church anywhere that is spiritually alive will undoubtedly take its singing, praying, and preaching very seriously indeed, and be jealous for all three.’ (Packer, Concise Theology)

As is evident in the Old Testament, the Hebrew faith emphasized the joy of singing to the Lord, but Christianity is even more profoundly a singing faith. Singing can help to make teaching and preaching even more useful. The Colossians were to emphasize the ministry of teaching and admonition by the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

To the Lord – indicating the vertical aspect of worship, whereby we address the Lord directly when we sing. Examples: ‘King of glory, King of peace’; ‘All things praise thee, Lord most high’

As the form of the verb (submitting…’ indicates, ‘this passage [Eph 5:21-33] is directly dependent on the exhortation of Eph 5:18, “be filled with the Spirit.” One of the means of being filled with the Spirit is “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph 5:21). This indicates that an attitude of self-denial and a concern for the needs of others is an essential part of what it means to live as a Christian within the community of believers. At the same time, Paul affirms that the filling of the Spirit is also predicated upon fulfilling a set of distinctive role obligations for each social grouping within the Christian household. In other words, the work of the Spirit can be hindered by individual self-centeredness that is displayed by rejecting a proper Christian role in relationships and an attitude of giving of oneself to others.’ (Arnold)

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ – The word translated ‘submit’ is hypotassō.  It means ‘to take a subordinate role in relation to that of another’ (Lincoln).  The middle voice indicates that Paul is envisioning a voluntary, rather than an imposed or servile, submission.

'Submit to one another'

Ephesians 5:21 – ‘…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.’

What does it mean to ‘submit to one another’?

1. Some think that it means that everyone is to submit to everyone else

Wives to husbands, husbands to wives, children to parents, parents to children, and so on.  In this case, ‘to submit’ would have to mean, ‘care for one another and put one another’s needs first.’  It is claimed that this is the clear meaning of the text itself.

According to Arnold, this is the view of Chrysostom, Best, Hoehner, MacDonald, G. W. Dawes, George W. Knight III, Lincoln, Schnackenburg, Bruce, Stott, Barth, and Ellicott.  Several others are named in the following notes.

Foulkes comments:

‘The importance to Paul of the whole concept of submission is evident from the use of the word more than twenty times in his letters. He is to apply this in special instances in the next section, but we should note that he first gives it a completely general application. There must be a willingness in the Christian fellowship to serve any, to learn from any, to be corrected by any, regardless of age, sex, class, or any other division.’

Liefeld agrees:

‘There are two possible ways to view the mutual submission taught in verse 21. One is to see it in terms of classes (groups, roles or ranks), with one another meaning that members of one group submit to members of another group in one direction only, according to the group’s function (as in military rank). The other interpretation is that it applies to interpersonal relationships among individuals, with each deferring at appropriate times to the other. This seems more in accord with the theme of verses 18–20, Spirit-filled believers ministering to one another.’

Christians for Biblical Equality state that

‘the Bible teaches that husbands and wives are heirs together of the grace of life and that they are bound together in a relationship of mutual submission and responsibility (1 Cor 7:3–5; Eph 5:21; 1 Peter 3:1–7; Gen 21:12). The husband’s function as “head” (kephale) is to be understood as self-giving love and  service within this relationship of mutual submission (Eph 5:21–33; Col 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7).’

Muddiman notes the lack of the verb hypotassomenoi (“to submit”) in Eph 5:22, and points to 1 Corinthians 7:4, which states that neither a husband nor a wife has authority over their own bodies; instead, the authority of one spouse’s body belongs to the other spouse.

I.H. Marshall cites a number of examples of reciprocal submission:

‘The key passage in Paul is Galatians 5:13, where believers are to be slaves to one another (even stronger than “being submissive”!) in love. Similarly, in Philippians 2:3–4 they are to consider others better than themselves and to look to the interests of others (cf. Rom 12:10). If this is to be true of Christian relationships in general, it must surely include the marriage relationship. In John 13:14 the disciples are to wash one another’s feet, and Jesus as Lord sets an example by doing this to his disciples. The collocation of a command to the younger to be submissive to the older members/elders with a command that all are to put on humility toward one another in 1 Peter 5:5 indicates that it was possible to combine the general and the specific and offers a parallel to what is done here’ (Discovering Biblical Equality).

But it seems to me that although Marshall has shown that all relationships between Christians should be characterised by humility, he has not demonstrated that they should be marked by reciprocal submission.

Michael Bird, in Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts (Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry),offers a fairly nuanced version of the interpretation.  He maintains that

‘Ephesians 5:22–24 should be taken in light of 5:21, and 5:21 plainly states that every person can find themselves subject to another person. Paul doesn’t say “every person” should submit to “every person” in some kind of anti-hierarchical anarchy. More likely, the church of God exists in a network of relationships where submission to other persons in some office or task is necessary. When such submission happens, one is following the example of Christ, who submitted himself to God the Father.’

But, asks Bird, ‘should husbands ever submit to their wives?’  Although some complementarians (such as Grudem) find this unthinkable, 1 Cor 7:4 makes it clear that wives and husbands do not have authority over their own bodies but submit them to the authority of the other.  Thisis consistent with 1 Cor 11:11, where the apostle speaks of interdependence between husbands and wives.

Bird continues:

‘I think male headship is in a sense normative, but headship will mean bowing that head to the wife in many matters pertaining to marriage, so “mutual submission” is in fact an accurate term.’

But what about at church?  Bird thinks that the mention of a male (Stephanas) and a female (Chloe) as leaders of their respective households suggests that they had a leadership role in the house-churches that met in their homes.  This is clear enough in the case of Stephanas (1 Cor 16:16f), and may have been the same in the case of Chloe.

This approach implies ‘servant leadership’ – the notion that even those who are in authority should submit to those under that authority.  This interpretation is supported by Paul’s description of himself as becoming a slave to all, 1 Cor 9:19, and his instruction to the Galatian Christians to ‘serve as each other’s slave through love’, Gal:13.  Thielman quotes Calvin: ‘Even kings and governors rule that they may serve.’  Although husbands, parents, and others retain their authority, they exercise it with an attitude of service over those over whom they have been placed.

Although this concept of ‘servant leadership’ embodies a clear scriptural principle, it is less clear that it adequately represents Paul’s meaning here.

It would, moreover, make Paul inconsistent with himself when he proceeds to talk specifically about wives’ subjection to husbands, but not the converse.  Grudem remarks that the idea that a wife should submit to her husband would have been so unexpected in the male-dominated culture of the time, that the NT writers could have been expected to say it very clearly, if that is what they meant.

The term ‘one another’ (allēlous) certainly can sometimes mean ‘everyone to everyone else’, as in Jn 13:34.  But there are other times when does not carry such an unrestricted meaning.  See, for example,

Rev 6:4, which speaks of men slaying ‘one another’;
1 Cor 11:33, where Paul exhorts his readers to ‘wait for one another’;
Mt 24:10, where people are said to ‘betray one another’;
Lk 12:1, where people ‘trample one another’;

Accordingly, Grudem paraphrases the present verse as follows: ‘Be subject to others in the church who are in positions of authority over you.

Beth Allison Barr (The Making of Biblical Womahood) faults the ESV for introducing a section break between verses 20 and 21.  This has the effect, she says, of muting Paul’s teaching on mutual submission, and is motivated by the  complementarian bias of translators.  But what Barr fails to note is that the word translated ‘submit’ in verse 20 is the last in a series of five participles and is therefore as strongly linked to what immediately precedes is as to what follows it.  (In truth, there probably shouldn’t be a section break here at all!)

Tom Nettles points to the illogical and unbiblical implications of Barr’s reading:

‘Why has Paul gone into such detail about the duties fitting in these various relationships if in the end they are rendered plastic by their connection with verse 21? Paul should have said “Wives submit to your husbands” and also “Husbands submit to your wives.” He should have written, “Children, obey your parents and bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” and “Parents, obey your children.” He should have commanded, “Masters, obey your earthly slaves with a sincere heart as you would Christ.” But he did not: he explained in detail, even given the connection of 21 with 22 rather than a summary of 15-20, how God expects the relations of persons and various states in the church to relate to one another.’

According to Derek and Dianna Tidball (The Message of Women), the word translated ‘submit’ was originally a hierarchical term but in time broadened its meaning and did not necessarily include the idea of obedience, still less inferiority.  They note that Paul deliberately avoids the word ‘obey’ here, though he will go on to use that word of children and slaves.  The Tidballs are correct (I think) to state that ‘one can obey without submitting’, since the latter involves an attitude of heart of mind that may be absent in the former.  But they are less persuasive when they imply that one can submit without obeying (having already allowed only that it did not ‘immediately carry with it’ that thought).

To the Tidballs, the idea that ‘one another’ in v21 applies only to the wife submitting to the husband, and not vice-versa, is ‘indefensible for several reasons’.  They note that mutual submission (or something like it) is taught in Gal 5:13; Phil 2:3f; Eph 42, 32; 5:1.  What they do not note is the asymmetry of the present passage (in which Paul might easily have addressed both husbands and wives, but only directly instructs the latter to ‘submit’ to their husbands).

The Tidballs’ argument seems inconsistent when they quote Arnold (favourably) on v24:

‘This means that a wife should cultivate an attitude of affirming, supporting and respecting her husband’s leadership in the marriage without holding back certain areas where she wants to assert or maintain control.’  And no complementarian would demure when they add: ‘But…this is not a licence for the husband to demand obedience, to require that the wife act sinfully or submit to abuse.’

The Tidballs write that

‘when women in the Christian household submit to their husbands they might expect to be met with a reciprocal submission, patterned on Christ himself, rather than an arrogant authoritarianism which has been moulded by the non-Christian values of their culture.’  But ‘arrogant authoritarianism’ is not the only alternative to ‘reciprocal submission’!

In What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women, Kevin Giles asserts that ‘the vast majority of commentators accept that verse 21 is an exhortation to mutual submission,’ and that the Interpretation of Grudem and the Kostenbergers is ‘idiosyncratic’, determined by its proponents’ presuppositions about complementarianism.  Giles dismisses the Kostenbergers’ appeal to Rev 6:4 (where opposing armies are said to ‘slay one another’, when, clearly, ‘these people don’t kill each other at exactly the same time’) as ‘not serious scholarship’.

Giles cites Philip Payne in support of the view that ‘every occurrence of the Greek reciprocal pronoun allēlōn/one another in Paul’s epistles speaks of reciprocal action.’

Claire Smith writes that

‘there are several problems with this ‘mutual submission’ idea, not least of which is that the plain meaning of the subsequent verses goes against it: Christ does not submit to the church, neither are parents to submit to their children or masters to their slaves (cf. Eph 6:1-7; Col 3:18-22). These are non-reversible ordered relationships, as is the marriage relationship. Certainly, selfless love is a common mark of being filled by the Spirit (cf. Eph 4:2-3), but it exists alongside of (not to the exclusion of) responsibilities of submission and authority in specific relationships. Besides, nowhere are husbands told to submit to their wives, and submission language (hupotassō/hupotagē) is uniformly used in the New Testament for asymmetrical relationships.’  (God’s Good Design)

Grudem (in Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood) agrees that there is a sense in which mutual submission is a scriptural principle.  This sense is captured well by Campus Crusade for Christ:

‘In a marriage lived according to these truths, the love between husband and wife will show itself in listening to each other’s viewpoints, valuing each other’s gifts, wisdom, and desires, honoring one another in public and in private, and always seeking to bring benefit, not harm, to one another.’

But, because of the meaning invested in ‘mutual submission’ by egalitarians, the phrase is (suggests Grudem) best avoided.

2. Others think that Paul’s instruction here is defined and clarified by the examples that follow

According to Arnold, this is the view of O’Brien, Grudem, Clark and Robinson.

Thielman adds the names of Theodoret (5th century), Ellicott, Hoehner, and Walden.

Also Poole: ‘Submitting yourselves one to another, viz. to those to whom ye ought to be subject in natural, civil, or church relations.’

Grudem, for example (in Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood), points out that in those examples, wives are instructed to submit to their husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters, and never the reverse.  There is never any command for husbands to be subject to their wives.  This is also the case in Eph. 5:22–24; Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1–6.  Grudem notes that in all the following instances where the Greek word hypotassō is used, it contains the notion of ‘submission to authority’:-

• Jesus was subject to the authority of His parents (Luke 2:51).
• Demons were “subject to” the disciples (Luke 10:17; it is clear that the meaning “be considerate of, be thoughtful toward” cannot fit here, for the demons were certainly not considerate of or thoughtful toward the disciples!).
• Citizens are to be “subject to” the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1, 5; see also Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13).
• The universe is “in subjection” to Christ (1 Cor. 15:27; see also Eph. 1:22).
• Angels and other spiritual beings have been “subjected to” Christ (1 Pet. 3:22).
• Christ is “subjected to” God the Father (1 Cor. 15:28).
• Church members are to be “subject to” the elders in the church (1 Pet. 5:5).
• Wives are told to “submit to” their husbands (Eph. 5:22, 24; Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:5).
• The church “submits to” Christ (Eph. 5:24).
• Servants are to be “submissive to” their masters (Titus 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:18).
• Christians are to be “subject to” God (Heb. 12:9; Jas. 4:7).

Grudem concludes that Paul’s meaning is, ‘Be subject to others in the church who are in positions of authority over you.’

Surveying the same kinds of NT evidence as adduced by Grudem, DeYoung concludes:

‘Nowhere in the New Testament does hypotasso refer to the reciprocal virtues of patience, kindness, and humility. It is always for one party or person or thing lining up under the authority of another.’

Andreas and Margaret Kostenberger (God’s Design for Man and Woman) note that

‘mutual submission in the sense of interchangeability of roles…doesn’t work in the larger context of Ephesians 5:21, where Paul moves from wives to children to slaves, calling each group to submit to its respective authorities.’

It is likely (the Kostenbergers add) that ‘Paul first sets down the overarching principle— submission to authority— and then specifies that in each of the three types of relationship he adduces, one group should submit to the authority of the other: wives to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters.’

Arnold finds four problems with this view:

(1) It fails to recognize that this participle is dependent on the main verb of this section, “be filled with the Spirit,” which is addressed to all believers;
(2) it also fails to recognize how this admonition provides a fitting conclusion to the previous section by calling all believers to the radical form of self-denial and love that Christ has modeled for the church;
(3) it unduly restricts the unqualified reciprocal pronoun (ἀλλήλοις) to members of the household addressed in the next section; and
(4) it does not take into account that the primary verbal element in the household code shifts from “submit” (ὑποτάσσω) to “obey” (ὑπακούω) when Paul moves his focus away from wives to children and slaves.

3. Still others think that what is being taught here is the idea (prevalent elsewhere in the NT) of ruling and serving

Lincoln, in his nuanced discussion of this text, argues against an either/or interpretation.  The author prescribes both mutual submission and the subjection of wives to husband, slaves to masters, and children to parents.  There is, writes Lincoln, an interesting parallel in 1 Pet 5:5,

‘where the exhortation “you that are younger be subject to the elders” is followed immediately by the further appeal “clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another.” The latter admonition was not meant to cancel out the former. Rather, the writer holds that there is a general sense in which elders are to serve their flock, including its younger element, in a submissive attitude, but that mutuality goes along with a hierarchical view of roles. Thus there is a specific sense in which the flock in general and the younger in particular are to be obedient to the elders. Similarly, here in Ephesians mutual submission coexists with a hierarchy of roles within the household. Believers should not insist on getting their own way, so there is a general sense in which husbands are to have a submissive attitude to wives, putting their wives’ interests before their own, and similarly parents to children and masters to slaves. But this does not eliminate the more specific roles in which wives are to submit to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters.’

This idea of ruling and serving is captured by Calvin:

‘God has bound us together in such a way that none of us should reject submission. Where love reigns, this spirit of service is mutual. Even kings and governors rule as servants.… However, since there is nothing more opposed to the human spirit than the desire to submit to others, Paul calls us to it by reminding us of the reverence we owe to Christ. He is the only one who can tame our rebelliousness and subdue our pride, so that we shall be willing to serve our neighbors.’

Hodge sees the principle of mutual submission in this passage:

‘This command to submit one to another is found in other passages of the New Testament, as in 1 Peter 5:5, “All of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility.” Romans 12:10; Philippians 2:3. The scriptural doctrine on this subject is that men are not isolated individuals, each one independent of all others. No man liveth for himself and no man dieth for himself. The essential equality of men and their mutual dependence lay the foundation for the obligation of mutual subjection. The apostle however is here speaking of the duties of Christians. It is, therefore, the Christian duty of mutual submission of which this passage treats. It not only forbids pride and all assumption of superiority, but enjoins mutual subjection, the subjection of a part to the whole, and of each one to those of his fellow believers with whom he is specially connected. Every Christian is responsible for his faith and conduct to his brethren in the Lord, because he constitutes with them one body having a common faith and a common life. The independency of one Christian of all others, or of one Christian society of all similar societies, is inconsistent with the relation in which believers stand to each other, and with the express commands of Scripture.

And then,

‘The general duty of mutual submission includes the specific duty of wives to be subject to their husbands, and this leads the apostle to speak of the relative duties of husbands and wives.’

Hays (cited by Arnold) puts it like this:

‘The hierarchical structure of the relations described is tempered by a comprehensive vision of the church as a people living in humility and mutual submission.’

Thielman, while thinking that there is much to be said for the second view outlined above, also favours this third view.  He begins by explain that

‘The verb ὑποτάσσω refers to the ordering of something underneath something else, and when the passive voice of the verb is used of people (as it is here), it often refers to the voluntary “submission” of one person to another (BDAG 1042). People should place their minds underneath God’s authority (but often do not do this; Rom. 8:7; cf. 10:3); people should place themselves under the divinely ordained governmental authorities (Rom. 13:1, 5; Titus 3:1); the Corinthian church should submit to the household of Stephanas (1 Cor. 16:16); wives should, similarly, submit themselves to their husbands (Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5), and slaves should do the same with respect to their masters (Titus 2:9).’

Thielman continues by agreeing that

‘there is a sense in which even those in authority “submit” to their subordinates. If Paul, who considered himself to be an authoritative apostle, could speak of becoming a slave (δουλόω, douloō) to all (1 Cor. 9:19), and could command all the Galatian Christians to “serve as each other’s slave [δουλεύετε ἀλλήλοις, douleuete allēlois] through love” (Gal. 5:13), then he could also speak both of “submitting to one another” and of exercising authority without contradiction (Jerome [Heine 2002]: 231). “Even kings and governors,” says Calvin (1965: 204), “rule that they may serve.” In the household code that follows 5:21, then, there is a sense in which husbands, fathers, and masters submit to those over whom they have authority, although the terms ὑποτάσσω or ὑπακούω (hypakouō) are not used of their responsibilities. Although the head of the household retains his position of authority, his use of that authority is tempered by an attitude of service to those over whom he has been placed (cf. Eadie 1883: 407; Bruce 1984: 382; Lincoln 1990: 366; Best 1998: 516–17; Helton 2005: 33–41).’


‘Paul’s use of the notion of reciprocity so far in Ephesians leads the letter’s readers to understand the pronoun here in a fully reciprocal sense. The letter has just spoken of bearing with “each other” (4:2), being members of “one another” (4:25), and being kind to “one another” (4:32), using ἀλλήλων in each case to refer to expectations of all believers. To hear now of “submitting to one another” might seem slightly strange, but it does hint that there is a sense in which everyone is involved in serving others.’

Thielman cites 1 Cor 16:15f as somewhat parallel:

‘There Paul says that the members of Stephanas’s household in Corinth “placed themselves at the service of the saints” (εἰς διακονίαν τοῖς ἁγίοις ἔταξαν ἑαυτούς, eis diakonian tois hagiois etaxan heautous). He then urges the Corinthian believers generally to “submit [ὑποτάσσησθε, hypotassēsthe] to such people.”’

The mutuality of submission, observes Thielman, is not the same in every case.  For,

‘in the code itself, husbands, fathers, and masters are never told to submit to, obey, or fear their wives, children, and slaves—but the instructions to the head of the household do rein in his power, and the entire code closes with a sober warning that he too is under the authority of God, who is no respecter of persons (Eph. 6:9). The mutuality of the code and the restraint that it places on the one in authority make it likely that the odd expression “submit to one another” means more than simply “obey whom you are supposed to” (trans. Walden 2003: 254). It certainly includes this meaning, but it also prepares the ground for the distinctive approach that the household code takes to the responsibilities of husbands, fathers, and masters.’

‘The verb ὑποτάσσω refers to the ordering of something underneath something else, and when the passive voice of the verb is used of people (as it is here), it often refers to the voluntary “submission” of one person to another (BDAG 1042). People should place their minds underneath God’s authority (but often do not do this; Rom. 8:7; cf. 10:3); people should place themselves under the divinely ordained governmental authorities (Rom. 13:1, 5; Titus 3:1); the Corinthian church should submit to the household of Stephanas (1 Cor. 16:16); wives should, similarly, submit themselves to their husbands (Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5), and slaves should do the same with respect to their masters (Titus 2:9).’ (Thielman)

‘Maintaining due subordination in the various relations of life. This general principle of religion the apostle proceeds now to illustrate in reference to wives, Eph 5:22-24; to children, Eph 6:1-3; and to servants, Eph 6:5-8. At the same time that he enforces this duty of submission, however, he enjoins on others to use their authority in a proper manner, and gives solemn injunctions that there should be no abuse of power. Particularly he enjoins on husbands the duty of loving their wives with all tenderness, Eph 5:25-33; on fathers, the duty of treating their children so that they might easily obey them, Eph 6:4; and on masters, the duty of treating their servants with kindness, remembering that they have a Master also in heaven, Eph 6:9. The general meaning here is, that Christianity does not break up the relations of life, and produce disorder, lawlessness, and insubordination; but that it will confirm every proper authority, and make every just yoke lighter. Infidelity is always disorganizing; Christianity never.’ (Barnes)

Exhortations to Households, 22-33

5:22  Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, 5:23 because the husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the church—he himself being the savior of the body. 5:24 But as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Writing the the Women’s Bible Commentary, E. Elizabeth Johnson, writes of this letter’s ‘rather unfortunate view of marriage.’

‘The juxtaposition of the household code to the passage on spiritual warfare (Eph 6:10–20) likely suggests that this is one of the spheres of Satan’s attack. It is crucial for the various members of the Christian household to be filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) and to appropriate the enabling power of God (Eph 6:10–18) to resist the attacks of the evil one directed at these important and foundational relationships.’ (Arnold)

Lincoln argues that although the verb used here is ὑποτάσσεσθαι, “to submit, be subordinate,” while that employed in the case of children and slaves is ὑπακούειν, “to obey”, this difference should not be pressed too far.  ‘There is obviously a difference between willing submission and imposed obedience but hardly a major distinction between voluntary subordination and voluntary obedience. Here the obedience of children and slaves is to be seen as part of the mutual subordination enjoined in v 21. Elsewhere in the NT, in 1 Pet 3:5, 6, submission of wives to husbands and obedience of wives to husbands are explicitly paralleled.’

‘As the next verse will explain, what is involved here is that in voluntarily subordinating herself to her husband the wife is to see this as done in subordination to the Lord, because in the marriage relationship her husband reflects the Lord while she reflects the Church.’ (Lincoln)

This passage (Eph 5:22-6:9) takes the form of a set of household rules.  These were common amongst the Greeks and the Jews, although it was only the latter that included provisions for the protection of women and children.  Similar guidelines are found in Col 3:18-4:1 and 1 Pet 2:18-3:7.  Some see in the command for reciprocal submission (v21) as revolutionary, and implying that husbands should submit to wives, and parents to children.  But, in fact, the rules are quite conservative, and indicate that Christians were not to subvert the more general social order.  But Paul’s teaching differs from households rules that are found outside the NT by appealing, not to political structures such as the state or the city, but to Christ himself as the source and motivation.  Paul’s teaching is also radical in the dignity which he ascribes to wives, children and slaves, and in the way in which he denies absolute authority to the husband, stressing that all domestic relationships are to be subsumed within our relationship to the Lord.

    1. The argument from creation: the man was made first, then the woman, and the woman was made to benefit the man as a suitable helper for him.
    2. The argument from the story of the Fall: the woman was first in the transgression, and God decreed in judgement that henceforth her husband should rule over her.
    3. The argument from Paul’s statement that the man is the head whom the wife is to obey, as Christ is the Head whom the church is to obey, 1 Cor 11:3 Eph 5:23.
    4. The argument based on Paul’s words ‘does not nature itself teach you?’, 1 Cor 11:14. This was really an appeal to the hierarchical principle embedded in the then current cultural consensus, rather than to the Bible itself.
'The husband is the head of the wife?'

1 Corinthians 11:3 – ‘Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.’

Ephesians 5:23 ‘The husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the church.’

Much discussion has taken place over the meaning of kephale (‘head’) in these contexts.

Both texts are, of course, central to the debate about male ‘headship’.

The first of these texts has also been much discussed in the debate about the Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS).

Bruce Ware states:

‘In this chapter where Paul is about to deal with the importance of women acknowledging the headship of men in the community of faith by wearing head coverings, he prefaces his remarks by describing authority and submission that exist in the eternal Godhead.’
(Quoted by Routley, Jonathan J. Eternal Submission: A Biblical and Theological Examination (p. 56).)

Kevin Giles, on the other hand, denies that ‘headship’ has anything to do with authority, and, in case, we should be cautious before drawing parallels between human and divine relationships.  Moreover (according to Giles) this passage does not set out a hierarchical structure, but rather three pairs of relationships, in each of which one member is the ‘head’ of another member.

Robert Letham agrees with Giles that this is a hard text to interpret, and for that reason should not be viewed as decisive in the debate about ESS.

Fred Sanders (who also regards this as a bona fide hard passage) thinks that it is primarily about the incarnation.

1. Kephale as implying ‘leadership’

This is the ‘traditional’ view, favour by (according to Thiselton) Weiss, Robertson and Plummer, Wendland, Allo, Lietzmann and Kümmel, Grosheide, and Héring.  In more recent times, it has also been advocated by Fitzmyer, Grudem, Kostenberger, and others.

Kephale as ‘person with authority over’ would mean that there is a unique authority of the husband in respect of his wife, of Christ in respect of his church, and of God in respect of Christ.

Fee (Discovering Biblical Equality) concedes that in Hebrew usage the metaphorical use of ‘head’ usually referred to a leader or chieftain.  (This is in contrast to Greek usage, where this usage is much less common).

Piper and Grudem (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood):

‘Verse 23 is the ground, or argument, for verse 22; thus it begins with the word for. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife. . . .” When the headship of the husband is given as the ground for the submission of the wife, the most natural understanding is that headship signifies some kind of leadership.’

Grudem offers the following points:

(a) An examination of over 2,000 instances of kephale in ancient Greek literature shows that it is never used other than in reference to a person with governing authority.

(b) It seems very unlikely that the reference of Christ as ‘head’ of his church is lacking any idea of authority.

(c) In a swathe of references from the Old Testament (LXX) and New Testament clearly indicate that the one who is called ‘head’ is a person in authority:

  • David as king of Israel is called the “head” of the people he conquered (2 Samuel [LXX 2 Kings] 22:44): “You kept me as the head of the nations; people whom I had not known served me”; similarly, Psalm 18 (LXX 17):43
  • The leaders of the tribes of Israel are called “heads” of the tribes (1 Kings [LXX 3 Kings] 8:1, Alexandrinus text): “Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes” (similar statements in the second-century AD Greek translation of Aquila, Deuteronomy 5:23; 29:9 (English verse 10); 1 Kings [LXX 3 Kings] 8:1)
  • Jephthah becomes the “head” of the people of Gilead (Judges 11:11: “the people made him head and leader over them”; also stated in 10:18; 11:8, 9)
  • Pekah the son of Remaliah is the “head” of Samaria (Isaiah 7:9: “The head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah”)
  • The father is the “head” of the family (Hermas, Similitudes 7.3; the man is called “the head of the house”)
  • The husband is the “head” of the wife (Ephesians 5:23: “The husband is head of the wife even as Christ is head of the church”)
  • Christ is the “head” of the church (Colossians 1:18: “He is the head of the body, the church”; also in Ephesians 5:23)
  • Christ is the “head” of all things (Ephesians 1:22: “He put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church”)
  • God the Father is the “head” of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:3: “the head of Christ is God”)

(d) It makes no sense to say that ‘the husband is the source of the wife’ (Eph 5:23).

(e) Modern Greek lexicons agree that kephale means ‘person in authority over’, and not ‘source’.

Schreiner, in his discussion of 1 Cor 11:3, agrees that

‘in some instances, the word kephalē may mean ‘source’ (e.g. Eph. 4:15; Col. 2:19), but in other instances in Paul the word ‘authority’ fits the context better (cf. Eph. 1:22; 5:23; Col. 1:18; 2:10). The most important evidence here is the parallel in Ephesians 5:23 where Paul also discusses the relationship of men and women, though in this instance the focus is on husbands and wives. Wives are called upon to submit to their husbands since husbands are head (Eph. 5:22–23). The word ‘head’ here clearly designates authority, for contextually the notion of authority fits with the call for wives to submit. Furthermore, husbands are not the physical source of their wives, for, as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 11:11–12, all men come from women. Nor are husbands the spiritual source of their wives, since that honour goes to Jesus Christ.’

Of significance in the context of the present letter is Eph 1:22 – ‘God put all things under Christ’s feet, and gave him to the church as head over all things.’  See also Col 2:10.  The idea of authority here seems inescapable.  Fee, however, thinks that kephale has three different nuances in this pair of letters:

‘(a) Christ’s relationship with the church (Eph 4:15–16; 5:23; Col 1:18; 2:19), (b) Christ’s relationship to “the powers” (Eph 1:22; Col 2:10) and (c) a householder’s relationship to his wife (Eph 5:23).’

Fee thinks, accordingly, that we should not necessarily import the meaning of one text (say, Eph 1:22) into another text (such as the present one).


kephalē is also used figuratively to mean a higher position of authority. Jesus is the head over every power and authority in the universe (Eph 1:22; Col 2:10). Moreover, Jesus is the head of the church, which is his body (Eph 1:22; 4:15; Col 1:18; 2:19). Paul speaks of the husband as the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph 5:23). In 1 Cor. 11:3–15 Paul shifts back and forth from a figurative to a literal use of kephalē. Figuratively, God is the head of Christ, who is the head of man, who is the head of his wife (v. 3; also vv. 4b, 5b).’ (Complete Expository Dictionary of Old Testament and New Testament Words)

According to a contributor to DBI:

‘Some notion of authority or leadership appears to be present in 1 Corinthians 11 when Paul speaks of God in his relationship to Christ, Christ in his relationship to humanity and man in relationship to woman (1 Cor 11:3).’

Blomberg agrees that the word kephale, used metaphorically, can mean either ‘source’ or ‘authority’.  Paul seems to use the first meaning in Eph 4:15, but the second meaning in Eph 1:22:

‘But even here [in 1 Cor 11:3] Paul sends mixed signals, supplying an argument from the origin of men and women in verses 8–9, 12 but speaking explicitly of authority (Gk. exousia) in verse 10. The other passage in which Paul calls a man “head” over a woman refers as well to wives’ subordination to their husbands (Eph. 5:22–24), so “authority” seems somewhat more likely here too.’

According to NBC, ‘head’ unequivocally means ‘master’, and never had the meaning of ‘source’ (as some have claimed) in biblical Greek.  Grudem, similarly, rejects this argument on the basis of an analysis of usage in ancient Greek literature.  It would seem from Eph 1:22 that headship does indeed imply some kind of ‘authority over’.  But this must not be over-stated.  The NT never uses the word ‘authority’ to describe a husband’s role, nor the word ‘obedience’ to describe the wife’s.  Moreover, the word ‘subordination’ is inappropriate, given its implication of inferiority, rank, and discipline.

Fitzmyer, after a survey of the evidence, concludes that

‘a Hellenistic Jewish writer such as Paul of Tarsus could well have intended that Kephale in 1 Cor 11. 3 be understood as ‘head’ in the sense of authority or supremacy over someone else.’

Whereas the Kostenbergers state whenever kephalē is used ‘with reference to human relationships’ it carries the ‘primary . . . sense of authority,’ not ‘source’, Giles says that ‘in making this claim they stand in opposition to the overwhelming majority of contemporary commentators and theologians’.  From the evidence just reviewed, this would appear to be a rather wild exaggeration.

2. Kephale as ‘source’

The traditional understanding, then, has been that ‘head of’ means, or at least implies, ‘has authority over’.  The revisionist approach, favoured by many egalitarians, is that it does not even imply the notion of ‘authority’.  The most favoured alternative (at least until recent years) is ‘source’.

Although dating back to Cyril of Alexandria, the idea that kephale means ‘source’, rather than ‘chief’, came to prominence in an article by Stephen Bedale published in 1954.  It was taken up by F.F. Bruce and C.K. Barrett in their respective commentaries on 1 Corinthians.  It is also adopted by Manfred Brauch in Hard Sayings of the Bible.

Kephale as ‘source’ would be an allusion to Gen 2, where Eve is created from Adam’s side.  In some analogous way, according to this interpretation, Christ is the ‘source’ of the church, and God the ‘source’ of Christ.  This view goes back as far as Cyril of Alexandria, and finds support from 1 Cor 11:8, where it is said that the woman was created from the man.

Fee argues for the translation of ‘head’ (kephale) as ‘source’, rather than ‘one in authority’.  Among other things, he notes that the immediate context (‘man did not come from woman, but woman from man’, v8; ‘the woman came from men’, v12), which does seem to favour the idea of ‘source’.

Christians for Biblical Equality state:

‘The Bible teaches that husbands and wives are heirs together of the grace of life and that they are bound together in a relationship of mutual submission and responsibility (1 Cor. 7:3–5; Eph. 5:21; 1 Pet. 3:1–7; Gen. 21:12). The husband’s function as “head” (kephalē) is to be understood as self-giving love and service within this relationship of mutual submission (Eph. 5:21–33; Col. 3:19; I Pet. 3:7).’

Giles argues:

‘To argue that kephalē means head/authority over in 1 Cor 11:3 is implausible. Paul immediately goes on to say that as long as a woman has her head covered she can lead the church in prayer and prophecy. Why subordinate woman to man and then immediately say that women can lead in church? It makes no sense. The well-established metaphorical meaning of “source,” in the sense of “source of life,” does make sense of this introductory comment. Paul is saying Christ is the kephalē of all humankind—as the co-creator; man (Adam) is the kephalē of the woman (Eve) in her creation, a point Paul makes in 1 Cor 11:8 and 12, and God [the Father], is the kephalē of Christ (the Son), in his eternal generation or incarnation. This interpretation of verse 3 avoids reading it to be teaching the error of subordinationism, the hierarchical ordering of the divine persons…Here it should be carefully noted that in this text Paul does not speak of a fourfold hierarchy, Father-Son-man-woman, but of three paired relationships in which in each instance one party is the kephalē. Christ is mentioned first and last.
‘That kephalē does not mean “head over/authority over” in verse 3 is confirmed by what Paul says in verse 10. The Köstenbergers argue that verse 10 speaks of the authority the man has over the woman. It does not. In the New Testament the Greek word exousia (authority) is used 103 times, and nine times in 1 Corinthians. In every instance it alludes to the authority one possesses. This text speaks of the authority women have in the new creation. It is rightly translated, “The women ought to have authority over (her) own head.” Paul could not have said this if he believed women were set under the authority of men as the creation ideal.’

Blomberg (NIVAC) argues that:

‘If “head” is taken merely as “source,” it would require interpreting “the head of Christ is God” as a reference to the incarnation, in order to avoid the ancient Arian heresy of claiming that God created Christ. But nothing else in the passage deals with Jesus coming to earth from heaven, while Paul’s theological arguments in both verses 8–9 and 10–11 explicitly appeal to the way God fashioned things at the time of creation.’

Claire Smith notes that

‘if we were to substitute ‘source’ for ‘head’ in verse 3, it just does not make theological sense. It would then say, “But I want you to realize that the source of every man is Christ, and the source of the woman is man, and the source of Christ is God”.  And if we understand ‘source’ to mean a similar thing in each of the three phrases, we end up with a Christ who was created rather than eternally begotten of the Father, and every man being made from Christ the same way that woman was made from man—that is, taken out of him (v. 8).’ (God’s Good Design)

Richard Hays (Interpreter’s Commentary on 1 Corinthians):

‘Some interpreters have attempted to explain away the hierarchical implications of v. 3 by arguing that kephalē means “source” rather than “ruler.” This is a possible meaning of the word, and it fits nicely with v. 8, in which Paul alludes to the Genesis story that describes the creation of woman out of man; however, in view of the whole shape of the argument, the patriarchal implications of v. 3 are undeniable. Even if Paul is thinking here primarily of man as the source of woman rather than authority over woman, this still serves as the warrant for a claim about his ontological preeminence over her, as vv. 7–9 show.’

(It should be noted, however, that Hays does not fully accept Paul’s argument, suggesting that Paul’s patriarchalism is open to challenge.)

Soards, though favouring this interpretation, agrees that ‘the interpretative debate is not settled’.  Thiselton, in fact, writing on 1 Corinthians, states that this interpretation is finding less favour in recent scholarship.

3. Kephale as ‘pre-eminent’ or ‘foremost’

Thiselton’s translation of v3: ‘However, I want you to understand that while Christ is preeminent [or head? or source?] for man, man is foremost [or head? source?] in relation to woman, and God is preeminent [or head? source?] in relation to Christ.’

Thiselton (Shorter Commentary) says that although ‘source’ was a popular rendering during the last quarter of the 20th century, the weight of research is now against it:

‘Head might be nearer, but this has unfortunate associations with domination and mastery in the modern world that fail to fit Paul’s precise meaning.’ Thiselton favours the idea of ‘foremost’, or ‘pre-eminent’.

This view was developed by Perriman in 1994, and is shared by Garland and (cautiously) Ciampa and Rosner.

Ciampa and Rosner suggest that the current debate has tended to move beyond disagreement over whether the word in question means ‘source’ or ‘authority over’.

‘Those rejecting those two possibilities have tended to a more nuanced understanding of “head” as meaning “prominent,” “preeminent,” or “foremost.”’


Even if by “head” Paul means “more prominent/preeminent partner” or (less likely) “one through whom the other exists,” his language and the flow of the argument seem to reflect an assumed hierarchy through which glory and shame flow upward from those with lower status to those above them. In this context the word almost certainly refers to one with authority over the other.

We may note, at this point, the conclusion of David Horrell (cited by Ciampa and Rosner):

Paul’s specific and contextual concerns clearly motivate the whole passage: he uses the word [“head”] precisely because his concern is with the way in which the [head] must be attired in worship. He follows the assertion of woman’s secondary place in the order of creation (vs. 8f.) not with a command for her to be subordinate, but with an insistence that her correct attire is a sign of her [authority] to pray and prophesy. Paul’s purpose seems to be the establishment of “proper” distinction between men and women rather than with male superiority or authority. The practical issue of attire is uppermost in his mind. (Translation of Gk. words in [brackets])

Derek and Dianna Tidball (The Message of Women) agree that the metaphor neither means ‘source’ nor emphasises ‘authority’.  Instead, it suggests ‘prominence’ and implies ‘the dual notion of leadership and provision’.

Verlyn D. Verbrugge comments (EBC, 2nd ed.):

‘The nuance to the word “head” (kephalē) is difficult to interpret, since it can denote prominence, leadership, or source (the same ambiguity holds in English when we talk about the head/top of a mountain, the head/leader of a company, or the head/source of a river). In most cases in the Greek language where kephalē does not mean a particular body part, the word carries the nuance of prominence; rarely does it denote source.’
‘Thus the text seems to mean that just as Christ as the Son acknowledges the preeminence of the Father to himself (certainly as to his human nature and even in the ontological analogy of Father-Son) and men acknowledge the preeminence of Christ over them, so women acknowledge the preeminence of men in the male-female relationship (or at least the husband-wife relationship) in that culture (note that the NRSV here translates anēr and gynē here as “husband” and “wife,” respectively). But prominence in a relationship does not mean submission or subordination; certainly it does not carry that meaning in the relationship between the Father and the Son, and it should not mean that between men and women in the church.’

4. Kephale as ‘responsibility’

Stott (Issues facing Christians today, 4th ed., p343f) prefers ‘responsibility’: responsibility to love sacrificially, and responsibility to care selflessly.

‘The husband’s headship of his wife…is a liberating mix of care and responsibility rather than control and authority.  This distinction is of far-reaching importance.  It takes our vision of the husband’s role away from questions of domination and decision-making into the sphere of service and nurture.’


In addition to the usual commentaries and other references works, the following have been consulted:

Fitzmyer, J. ‘Another look at Kephale in 1 Corinthians 11:3’New Test. Stud. vol. 35,1989, pp. 503-511.

Giles, K. What the Bible Actually Teaches on Men and Women.

Grudem, W. ‘Does Kephale (“Head”), Mean “Source” or “Authority” in Greek Literature? A Survey of 2,336 Examples’, Trinity Journal 6 (1985) 38-59.

Kostenberger, A. & M. God’s Design for Man and Woman: a Biblical and Theological Survey.

Perriman, A. “The Head of a Woman: The Meaning of Kephale in 1 Cor 11:3,” Journal of Theological Studies ns 45.2 (Oct. 1994): 602-622.

Is Paul's argument here culturally determined?
It is often argued that Paul’s teaching (see, for example, Campbell-Read, ‘Should Wives “Submit Graciously”? A Feminist Approach to Interpreting Ephesians 5:21-33’, Review and Expositor, Vol 98)  is culturally conditioned at this point, and therefore not valid in other cultures and at other times.  An attempt is made to support this argument from Paul’s teaching on slavery.  ‘We are all agreed,’ it is asserted, ‘that Paul accepted slavery, but that we can no longer accept it today.  Surely, the same applies to women: it is high time that they were liberated, just as slaves have already been liberated.’

Martin Davie: ‘As Christopher Ash observes, this argument is “appealing in an egalitarian culture” but it faces “an enormous exegetical problem” in relation to the argument put forward by St Paul in Ephesians 5. As he notes:

Paul develops the patriarchal theme in Ephesians with considerable warmth and passion along lines suggested to him by the long Old Testament theme of the marriage of the Lord to his people his bride (this development is in marked contrast to slavery, where the New Testament writers offer no such rationale). Best ignores this wider scriptural theme when he says, ‘No logical reason dictates the drawing of a parallel between the relationship of Christ and the church and that of a husband and wife’… He claims that Christ could equally well have been portrayed as wife with the church as husband, and that the only reason the writer puts it this way is that he lived in a patriarchal culture (and the grammatical convention that ekklesia is feminine). On the contrary, there is a deeply scriptural and theological reason. This motif of the divine marriage is central to the grand story of the Bible, it is not an occasional or ad hoc argument produced to make a particular point at a specific situation. This theological motif strongly suggests that when Paul speaks of the submission of wives to husbands he does so, not with hesitation or regret, but because he understand that this theme ties the marriage relationship on earth to the great drama of salvation.

‘In other words [writes Davie],…the reason why wives are to submit to their husbands is because [sic] Christ is the head of his Church and the Church is called to submit to him. In the same way husbands are to love their wives because Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her. This is as true in our egalitarian society as it was in the patriarchal society of the first century.’

As Stott points out (Issues Facing Christians Today) this argument contains a number of flaws.  Most important are the Scriptural considerations: nowhere does Paul appeal to Scripture in favour of slavery, whereas he does precisely that with regard to the role of women.  ‘He drew his readers’ attention to the priority of creation (“man did not come from woman, but woman from man”, 1 Cor 11:8), and the purpose of creation (“neither was man created for woman, but woman for man”, 1 Cor 11:9).  Thus according to Scripture, although “man is born of woman” and the sexes are interdependent (1 Cor 11:11f), yet woman was made after man, out of man and for man.’
Stott cites Hurley as demonstrating that Paul’s scriptural reasoning is sound and clear, for by right of primogeniture the firstborn inherits the responsibility of leadership; when Eve was taken out of Adam he named her, the right to name being connected with control; and Eve was made neither as an afterthought, nor a plaything, but as his companion and fellow worker.  It is to be noted that these arguments are taken from Genesis 2, not Genesis 3: they are based on God’s good creation, and do not arise out of humanity’s fallen condition.

‘Since it is mainly on these facts of creation that Paul bases his case for the husband’s headship, his argument has permanent and universal validity, and is not to be dismissed as culturally limited. The cultural elements of his teaching are to be found in the applications of the principle, in the requirement of ‘veiling’ certainly, and I think also in the requirement of ‘silence’. But the man’s (and especially the husband’s) ‘headship’ is not a cultural application of a principle; it is the foundation principle itself. This is not chauvinism, but creationism. The new creation in Christ frees us from the distortion of relations between the sexes caused by the fall (e.g. Gn. 3:16), but it establishes the original intention of the creation. It was to this ‘beginning’ that Jesus himself went back (e.g. Mt. 19:4–6). He confirmed the teaching of Genesis 1 and 2. So must we. What creation has established, no culture is able to destroy.’ (Stott)

Barth’s view is that the argument here is actually counter-cultural, in that it restricts female submission to wives in relation to their husbands (not other males), and not that women are inferior to men.

‘In Paul’s day, many Romans were troubled by the spread of “religions from the East” (e.g., Isis worship, Judaism and Christianity), which they thought would undermine traditional Roman family values. Members of these minority religions often tried to show their support for those values by using a standard form of exhortations developed by philosophers from Aristotle on. These exhortations about how the head of a household should deal with members of his family usually break down into discussions of husband-wife, father-child and master-slave relationships. Paul borrows this form of discussion straight from standard Greco-Roman moral writing.’ (IVP Bible Background Commentary)
‘Among the most sacred of…bonds of human society is the tie of marriage. The family is the primordial cell of the body politic, closely interlinked with the welfare of the species; and to tamper with it brings disaster to the state dissolute enough to sanction its desecration. Those who are busy undermining the chastity of wedlock today are the worst enemies of the common-weal. Its inviolability is not a question to be settled on grounds of expediency. The corner-stone of society is at stake in the matter.’ (Simpson)
‘Let her exhibit in the home circle those queenly virtues so much more potent and precious in many respects than the kinglier prerogatives of the legislature or office or bench.’ (Simpson)
James Hurley has stated: ‘Only with violence to the text can it be asserted that the idea of authority is absent from the language of headship and submission in Eph 5:22-33. However, a significant difference between the two passages must also be noted. Chapter 1 stresses that by God’s design all creation has been subjected to Christ for the sake of the church. In chapter 5 Paul sees God’s design as calling upon women to subject themselves (=submit) to their husbands as the church subjects itself to Christ. Husbands are not told to make their wives to be subject. Both Peter and Paul follow this pattern whenever they speak to persons called upon to be subordinate, whether wives, children, slaves or citizens. Submission for the sake of the love of Christ is set before the one who is to submit.’
Submit – The word is not present in the Greek text of this verse, but is inferred from the previous verse.  This circumstance indicates that in Paul’s teaching, the submission of wife to husband is just one example of mutual submission.
Paul does not use the word ‘obey’ here, as he does with reference to children and parents, and slaves and masters.  Lincoln, Best and others think there is little or no difference.  Marshall (Discovering Biblical Equality) is in broad agreement, but judges that the command to ‘be submissive is broader and conveys more than simply obeying specific commands; obey could have the effect of reducing the husband-wife relationship to a purely authoritarian one. Obey is used in this connection only in 1 Peter 3:6, and there only with reference to Sarah’s relationship to Abraham.’

As to the Lord – as part of their commitment to the Lord.

‘A Christian husband no more subjugates his wife to his will through intimidation or force than Christ forcibly subjugates the church to his will. Christ subjugates his enemies, but not his disciples. By placing wifely submission in the context of Jesus and his church, Paul clearly teaches that the husband-wife relationship should not be one of animosity, antagonism, servitude, or oppression, but one of love and respect.’ (Kenneth V. Neller, in Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity, Vol 1)

‘The basic idea presented here and repeated in Eph 5:24b is that women should not seek to assert themselves in the home in a way that could be viewed as ruling, controlling, or dominating. Rather, they must acknowledge the God-given role assigned to the husband and respect the leadership he endeavors to provide for the family.’ (Arnold)

‘In contrast to Aristotle and the widely influential tradition he spawned, there is nothing here about the natural inferiority of women to men and the appropriateness, then, of men ruling over women. There is certainly no hint that all women should submit to all men.’ (Thielman)

‘Submission is a universal requirement, but there are some types of relationship in which it is more particularly enjoined. The first of these is marriage, the second is parenthood, the third is employment. There are six different social classes, and Paul lays down the duties of each. He begins with wives, who are to submit to their husbands as they would submit to Christ. It is not that husbands possess Christ’s authority, but wives cannot obey him unless they submit to their husbands.’ (Calvin)

According to Chesna Hinkley, ‘the oppressed woman is encouraged to subvert the authority of her husband by giving her deference and service to Christ. As the household code in Colossians puts it: “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, and not for human masters…it is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col 3:23-24).’  This appears to be the opposite of what the apostle is actually saying.

A licence for abuse?

Paul’s teaching has sometimes been used as a licence for the domestic abuse of wives by their husbands.  But this is, in fact, a gross misuse of the text.  As Helen Thorne writes: ‘It’s meant to be an encouragement to choose to submit in the way that Jesus chose to submit to the Father. It’s meant to be a safe, trust-fuelled response to the call to husbands to love so very counter-culturally and sacrificially that they are willing to lay down everything (including, by inference, their desires) for the good of their wives. It’s meant to be just part of the dynamic of love that includes both husband and wife exhibiting gentleness, kindness, patience and keeping no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13). Such godly submission can never be achieved by force.’ (Quoted by Martin Davie)

The husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the church

A good theory, but…

This comment of Simon Ponsonby may be tongue-in-cheek, but contains more than a grain of common sense:

‘I do believe in husband’s headship in marriage because I believe Eph 5 is unequivocal on this – but what does that actually mean in practise? In my house it means I get to carve the sunday roast 😉

My dear dad is a strict believer in headship – but he admits the only time he put his foot down and made a decision against my mum’s desire, he was wrong, it led to disaster and he shoulda listened.

One irony I observed from my upbringing and grandparents being Exclusive Brethren is I saw exclusive male leadership in the Church (men and women even sat separate) but oh, the wives were unchallenged rulers in the house 🙂’

Tom Wright, while an advocate of women’s ordination, nevertheless insists on the complementarity (rather than the identity) of men and women:

‘Paul assumes, as do most cultures, that there are significant differences between men and women, differences that go far beyond mere biological and reproductive function. Their relations and roles must therefore be mutually complementary, rather than identical. Equality in voting rights, and in employment opportunities and remuneration (which is still not a reality in many places), should not be taken to imply such identity. And, within marriage, the guideline is clear. The husband is to take the lead—though he is to do so fully mindful of the self-sacrificial model which the Messiah has provided. As soon as ‘taking the lead’ becomes bullying or arrogant, the whole thing collapses.’

Writing in the The Independent (17th October 1992), Wright says,

The fullest exposition of headship in the New Testament occurs in Ephesians 5:21-33. This passage is about marriage, not about the position of male and female within society, nor yet about ministry within the church. But it is about headship, which has featured prominently in recent debate about ministry.
The meaning of ‘headship’ in this passage subverts Ozymandias-style headship in exactly the same way that the Gospel and the Bible both do. Christ is the head of the Church, says Paul; that is, he ‘loved the Church and gave himself up for her’.
The death of Jesus is the act which demonstrates what headship really means.
Elsewhere, Paul explains in more detail what Jesus’s death involved; it meant radically abandoning all privilege, all status, all authority of the head-of-gold variety (Philippians 2:6-8, 2 Corinthians 8:9). The only truly Christian headship wears a crown of thorns.

‘There is, of course, an Old Testament background to this in the way that the prophets regarded the Lord as husband of his people, entering into a marriage covenant with them, and loving them with steadfast love, even when, because of their idolatry, they were like an unfaithful wife who had committed adultery (e.g. Isa. 54:1–8; 62:4–5; Jer. 3:6–14; 31:32; Ezek. 16; 23; Hos. 1–3).’ (Foulkes, TNTC)

Body – In his book, Rise and be healed, Benny Hinn writes that ‘the Bible says in Eph 5:23 that Jesus Christ is the savior of the body…If Jesus Christ is the savior of the body, then your body ought to be made whole.’ This is, of course, an absurd interpretation: ‘the body’ in this verse is ‘his body’ – the church.

Of which he is Saviour – ‘Paul pictures the wife’s submission as the recognition of the authority of a husband who imitates the self-sacrificial, nurturing, and supporting roles that Christ fills with respect to the church.’ (Thielman)

As the Tidballs remark, Paul grounds his teaching on male headship within the family on the new creation (salvation in Christ) rather than on the old creation.  ‘Christ became the Saviour of his church by himself voluntarily submitting his body to torture and death…not by being self-assertive, or self-protective, nor by standing on his status and demanding obedience, but by sacrificial self-giving love.’ (The Message of Women, p242)

Wives should submit to their husbands – Some expositors (e.g. Foulkes) stress that Paul is talking only of marital and family relations here.  The implication drawn is that ‘she may fulfil any function and any responsibility in society, but if she has accepted before God the responsibility of marriage and of a family, these must be her first concern.’

In everything – I.H. Marshall claims that ‘this would suggest that no area of a wife’s life is outside the jurisdiction of her husband. It is hard to believe that any modern Christian husband would take this in such a comprehensive manner so that he could (at least in theory) interfere in any aspect of her life.’ (Discovering Biblical Equality).  But, surely, Paul expects this to be qualified by common sense.  He does not mean ‘in everything, no matter how silly or sinful’, any more than in 2 Cor 4:8; 7:5, when he says that he was ‘oppressed in every way’ (same expression) he means that he experienced every known affliction. (Thielman)

5:25 Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her 5:26 to sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of the water by the word, 5:27 so that he may present the church to himself as glorious—not having a stain or wrinkle, or any such blemish, but holy and blameless.
‘Let the wife make the husband glad to come home, and let him make her sorry to see him leave.’

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Husbands, love your wives – Ancient household codes never commanded husbands to love their wives, only wives to obey their husbands.

‘The sweeping nature of the demand placed on the wife (ἐν παντί, en panti, in everything; v. 23) is therefore matched by an equally sweeping demand on the husband. Like Christ, the husband is to love (ἀγαπάω, agapaō) his wife by the sacrifice of his own life on his wife’s behalf (cf. Eph 1:7; 2:13–16; 5:2).’ (Thielman)

Thielman points out that contemporary Greco-Roman advice was not devoid of encouragements to mutual love and tenderness.  But ‘the idea that the husband should expend his life in the care of his wife, however, is unusual. The far more typical approach to marriage was that the wife should manage the household well in order to free the husband from domestic concerns and enhance his social prestige. In contrast, Paul’s comparison between the husband’s love for his wife and Christ’s love for the church implies that the husband’s love for his wife should be so broad and long and high and deep (Eph 3:18–19) that it includes the sacrifice of his own social prestige and well-being, indeed his life, for the sake of his wife (cf. Phil. 2:5–8).’

‘It means not only a practical concern for the welfare of the other, but a continual readiness to subordinate one’s own pleasure and advantage for the benefit of the other. It implies patience and kindliness, humility and courtesy, trust and support (1 Cor. 13:4–7). This love means that one is eager to understand what the needs and interests of the other are, and will do everything in his power to supply those needs and further those interests.’ (Mitton)

‘Hast thou seen the measure of obedience? hear also the measure of love. Wouldst thou that thy wife should obey thee as the Church doth Christ? have care thyself for her, as Christ for the Church.’ (Chrysostom)

Marshall (Discovering Biblical Equality): ‘The command to husbands to love their wives and the fact that a wife is not a slave or a child indicate that something is silently happening to the nature of the relationship. From patriarchalism we have moved to love-patriarchalism, and the road is open to mutual love between brothers and sisters in Christ. This final step was not taken by Paul, any more than he took the step from accepting slavery to recognizing that his own teaching contained the seeds of its inevitable abolition, but this is the direction in which the evidence clearly points. Mutual love transcends submission.’  But this is to confuse two things – slavery and marriage – that have profound differences as well as some similarities.

‘Just as Christ loved the church…’

1. Dominion. We must banish all thoughts of an overbearing sway or cringing subservience; for a passion of mutual love glows in the bosoms of the ideal Bridegroom and his ideal bride. There is in fact a measure of equality between the human contracting parties, attempered by a measure of precedence … The husband bears rule, but his is no capricious or exacting priority. His lordship is not arbitrary but constitutional, and her deference not constrained, but spontaneously yielded.

2. Devotion. Wondrous have been the the exhibitions of self-sacrifice, even in the human sphere, that the spirit of deep affection has elicited … Love speedily outstrips law in the race of achievement. Constancy and self-abandonment ennoble her feats of arms … But the apostle exalts the love of Christ, as well he may, far above the human image of its dominance. That pales in presence of the more illustrious passion of Christ crucified, lip up with a radiance all its own … The ransomed of the Lord owe their very salvation to their Bridegroom. ‘Christ’s love to his elect passes knowledge; its depths are beyond the plumblines of created intelligences, its flame self-fed, self-kindled, aglow with an incandescence that many waters could not quench; a purpose to redeem which nothing could divert from its resolve, nor any obstacle, however tremendous, deter from achieving it once for all. The king of terrors, armed with his fellest sting, had no power to withhold this unblenching Lover from standing proxy for the bride of his choice. What an amazing spectacle this, of Life essential plunging into a dread abyss of dereliction that his bride might partake with him of everlasting bliss and joy! Is he not the mirror of chivalry no less than of devotion? No human suitor has ever loved, or ever will, on such a scale as that.’

3. Design. The Lord Jesus has formed his people for himself, the fruit of his travail rendered an object of eternal complacency in his eyes by sanctifying grace, a baseborn folk made gloriously pure and spotless by his sleepless watchfulness, to be presented to himself, when their fashioning season is overpassed, clad in a strangely radiant investiture of immortal loveliness. When their corruption has put on incorruption, they shall shine forth in his likeness; for the clothing of the bride imparadised is to be of wrought gold and she is made one spirit with her Lord, even as the ideal wife fuses her nature with her husband’s and finds in him her rounded whole and complement.’

4. Derivation. Here we come face to face with the marvel of the “mystical union” … Believers are members of his body by participation in the same quickening Spirit that indwelt Christ’s human nature. The inmost secret of redeeming love discloses itself in this conjunction. Thus the confluence of two lives in holy matrimony typifies a sublimer relation than its own, the union of the Song of Songs, a betrothal inward, reciprocal, everlasting.’

(Simpson, abridged)

Cleansing her by the washing with water – Lit. ‘having cleansed her’.  This probably refers to the pre-nuptial washing of the bride, after which she would be perfumed and dressed in her wedding clothes.  She was thereby ‘set apart’ for her husband, just as the church is to be ‘set apart’, or ‘made holy’, for her husband.

Most interpreters think that the reference is to baptism.  Some, however (including O’Brien, Hoehner and Thielman) regard it as a metaphorical reference to the saving power of the gospel.

The word – ‘It is probably the word of the gospel (cf. Rom. 10:8; 1 Pet. 1:25) rather than the human ‘pledge’ (Bruce) or ‘confession’ of faith (Moffatt) or the ‘baptismal formula’ (Schlier) that is meant.’ (Foulkes)

To present her to himself – One step in the Jewish marriage ceremony was the removal of the bride from her father’s home, and her introduction to the home of the groom.

Radiant – Just as the bride is radiant in her wedding attire.  ‘The church is pictured as a young bride of dazzling beauty. Her youth is evident from her unwrinkled skin, and her skin is unblemished as a result both of her youth and of the bridal bath she has just taken. Since the term ἔνδοξος can describe resplendent clothing (Luke 7:25), Paul was probably thinking of the especially beautiful garments that a bride might wear on the day of her wedding.’ (Thielman)

Holy and blameless – ‘Implicit in this claim that the church is the resplendent bride of Christ, then, is a call to live in a way that is consistent with this status.’ (Thielman)

5:28 In the same way husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 5:29 For no one has ever hated his own body but he feeds it and takes care of it, just as Christ also does the church, 5:30 for we are members of his body. 5:31 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. 5:32 This mystery is great—but I am actually speaking with reference to Christ and the church. 5:33 Nevertheless, each one of you must also love his own wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

‘The probable explanation for Paul’s descent to the more mundane level of self-love is that he is always a realist. We cannot fully grasp the greatness of Christ’s love; it ‘surpasses knowledge’, as he wrote earlier. Nor do husbands find it easy to apply this standard to the realities of family life. But we all know from everyday experience how we love ourselves. Hence the practical usefulness of the ‘golden rule’ Jesus enunciated that we should treat others as we would ourselves like to be treated. For we all know this instinctively. It is after all the way we treat ourselves.’ (Stott)  The same writer adds: ‘This exhortation to a husband to “nourish and cherish” his wife as he does his own body is more than a useful guide to daily behaviour, however. It also contains an inner appropriateness, since he and his wife have in fact become “one flesh”.’

Arnold: ‘Paul’s thought here is that husbands should carefully consider all of the ways that they care for themselves and make sure that they provide the same level of care for their wives.’

O’Brien: ‘The statement applies the second great commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18), in a direct way to the love which the husband should have for his nearest and dearest neighbour, namely, his wife.’

As their own bodies is perhaps an allusion to Gen 2:24 (‘they will become one flesh’), quoted in v31.

‘The idea of husbands loving their wives as their own bodies reflects the model of Christ, whose love for the church can be seen as love for his own body (cf. vv. 23, 30).’ (O’Brien)

He feeds and cares for it – ‘Such self-love is not wrong. It is the law of life, and the extension of it to similar care for one’s life-partner is the law of marriage.’ (Foulkes)

Paul has had this quotation from Gen 2:24 in his mind throughout this discussion about marriage.

‘This statement from the creation story is the most profound and fundamental statement in the whole of Scripture concerning God’s plan for marriage. It has been the ultimate bulwark of the church against the arguments for allowing polygamy to remain in the societies where she has met it; it is the ultimate argument against promiscuity; it is the ultimate reason why the church can have no pleasure in the dissolution of marriage by divorce.’ (Foulkes)

A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife – ‘Prior to marriage a man or a woman has his or her closest bond with parents, and to them has the greatest obligation. The new bond and obligation that marriage involves transcends the old. Filial duty does not cease, but the most intimate relationship now, and the highest loyalty, is that between husband and wife, and parents only imperil that relationship by trying in any way to come between. There must be a leaving of parents on the part of husband and wife, and a corresponding renouncing of rights on the part of parents. Then there is a cleaving of the two together in the ‘one flesh’ (av) relationship, blessed by God and a comfort and blessing to both.’ (Foulkes)

This is a profound mystery – The Western Catholic tradition understood the reference to marriage in Eph 5 as a ‘great mystery’ to mean that it was a sacrament, therefore having a permanent quality like baptism.  This came about in part due to the translation in the latin Vulgate of Gk musterion as sacramentum.  But, apart from the translational problems associated with such a view, it is more likely that the ‘great mystery’ refers not to marriage itself, but to what marriage points to – the union of Christ and the church.

I am talking about Christ and the church – ‘This probably means that the union of husband and wife in “one flesh” was originally intended to prefigure and to illustrate the union that Christ now has with the church.’ (Thielman)

O’Brien thinks that the ‘great mystery’ is not the union between Christ and his church, but rather this union as a paradigm for the union between the believing husband and wife.

Love his wife as he loves himself

The wife must respect her husband – The verb is lit. ‘fear’.  But this does not mean that the wife is to be ‘afraid’ of her husband, any more than the person who ‘fears’ God is afraid of him.  Such fearfulness cannot co-exist with love (cf. 1 Jn 4:18).